A New Zealand-designed school programme for developing computational thinking skills is being given a major global boost, thanks to a new grant announced today by Microsoft NZ.
The Computer Science Unplugged project is a collection of free learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and physical activity. The activities introduce students to Computational Thinking (CT) through concepts such as binary numbers, algorithms and data compression, but separated – ‘unplugged’ – from the distractions and technical details of having to use computers.
First developed by Professor Tim Bell of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with colleagues at other universities, the program has now been around for more than twenty years. In that time, it has been translated into 20 languages and developed a strong following around the world as an extension and outreach program for classrooms and science centers. The material is suitable for people of all ages and backgrounds, from elementary school to seniors, and is available free of charge under a Creative Commons license that allows it to be copied.
The new Microsoft ‘Youthspark’ grant of NZ$343,000 will now enable Professor Bell to re-factor the material so it will have greater applicability and usability within schooling systems all around the world. Bell says he is thrilled to receive the grant from Microsoft, which will enable this program development work to be done in New Zealand.
“One of the challenges is how we help teachers and students get started with teaching and learning computational thinking. CS Unplugged introduces the concept through a fun and engaging program that can get them started without the need for technology. We have found that enabling teachers and students to approach the subject through ‘unplugged’ lessons prior to getting onto a computer builds confidence and enthusiasm, and gets students thinking about the concepts involved,” says Prof. Bell.
“In its original form, CS Unplugged was designed for outreach and extension at a time when having the subject in the curriculum seemed unlikely. In the last few years many countries have realised the significance of the subject for their students, and have been working out how to get computer science topics into schools. While the CS Unplugged project has been a popular element of this, in its current form it needs some adaptation for use in the typical classroom.”
More easily used in the classroom
Prof. Bell says the new project that the Microsoft grant is funding will involve converting CS Unplugged to unit plans and lesson plans for teachers, adding videos about how it can be used in the classroom, and providing clear links to “plugged in” follow-up activities involving programming, so that it can be more easily used in the classroom setting.
The funding will also support a sister project, the Computer Science Field Guide, which is an online resource for teaching the subject to high school students. The guide will be expanded to cover more topics, and will include more multimedia and interactive elements to engage students.
Today’s announcement coincided with the first visit to New Zealand by Microsoft’s global CEO Satya Nadella, who visited Freeman’s Bay School as the guest of the Hon Hekia Parata to see how the school is utilising the CS Unplugged program.
Microsoft New Zealand Managing Director, Barrie Sheers, says the CS Unplugged program will make it easier for young people in underserved communities to learn the computational thinking skills that will provide the foundation for careers in technology, without the need for technology itself.
“Computer science talent can come from anywhere, and this program allows for equity of access to education in computational thinking,” says Sheers.
All youth to learn computer science
He says Microsoft globally is committed to working in partnership with governments, nonprofit organisations and businesses around the world to provide opportunities for all youth to learn computer science.
“Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, and today’s announcement is a perfect encapsulation of that mission.
“We were equally pleased by Ms Parata’s announcement of a new focus on Digital Technologies in the New Zealand school curriculum, and we see this as a significant way we can support students and teachers in building pathways to careers in the technology industry from the primary and secondary school level,” says Sheers.
“We are thrilled to be able to recognise Tim Bell’s great work, especially as he and his team have demonstrated incredible commitment to building this program over a long time. We are pleased to be able to help them accelerate the CS Unplugged program and take it to a new level.”